Mehbooba Mufti could have easily got herself elected to Kashmir’s legislative council (Upper House) and fulfilled the constitutional requirement to continue as the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister.
But she chose a difficult path, seeking to be people’s representative in the lower house from Anantnag constituency, thus making the assembly bypoll, scheduled for Wednesday, in this erstwhile hotbed of militancy a battle of prestige. Nobody is predicting defeat at the hustings for the first woman chief minister of the state from Anantnag, but poll pundits say the sailing may not be easy for her.
Mehbooba Mufti is not only battling an initial anti-incumbency factor — passed on to her by her late father and then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed — but also a hyper-pitched allegation by the opposition that her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has conspired with its ruling alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to demographically change the Muslim-dominated valley.
“She is the chief minister and all the agencies are on her side. That is the only factor that can help her to win. Otherwise, people have lost faith in her and the PDP, because they aligned with the RSS and BJP,” state Congress President Ghulam Ahmed Mir said. Mehbooba Mufti, who currently represents Anantnag-Kulgam constituency in the Lok Sabha, has never lost an election in her 20 years of political career. She was first elected to the state assembly in 1996.
According to sources close to the PDP President, Mehbooba Mufti was advised by her aides to get elected to the upper house in the state’s bicameral legislature. She was sworn-in chief minister on April 4 and it is constitutionally obligatory for her — or any minister — to get elected to the state legislature within six months of assuming office. She ignored the suggestion to get elected to the council, which would have been an easier option, and instead chose to run the gauntlet in the Anantnag constituency, left vacant by her father’s death in January. “We know there is a public anger against us (PDP).
There was a suggestion about the upper house but she decided against it and appears confident about Mufti Saheb’s legacy,” a close aide of the chief minister said, requesting not to be named. Traditionally, Anantnag has been a National Conference bastion. But the Muftis emerged stronger in and after 2002 elections when the senior Mufti fought the battle, promising to bring an end to the reign of terror unleashed by former militants who had formed a militia to fight alongside government forces.
They were called Ikhwanis and were instrumental in eliminating top militant commanders in this south Kashmir belt — known for its vocal pro-Pakistan stance. The senior Mufti won the 2002 assembly elections and formed the government with the Congress. And among his first priorities, he got the Ikhwanis disbanded. The PDP won from Anantnag again in 2008 and 2014. Mehbooba Mufti is hoping to repeat history. But it may be more difficult than previous polls.
“The PDP in 2014 came to power by promising development. They won a mandate against the BJP. But formed a government with them and no development actually is seen on the ground even after a year in power. She has betrayed us and this time there is no chance for her,” said Zahoor Ahmed, a local businessman who claimed to have voted for the PDP in the last polls.
Another of major challenges for Mehbooba Mufti is a deep division within her party with many of its mid-rung leadership not happy over the alignment with the BJP. A high voter turnout is not expected on Wednesday. A united separatist leadership has called for poll boycott and there has been a sudden surge in militancy related incidents across the state, including in south Kashmir. But the PDP appeared confident of Mehbooba Mufti’s victory.
“There is nothing new in the boycott call. People will come out to vote. We had a wonderful turnout in 2014 too, so we are looking forward to Wednesday,” PDP chief spokesperson Mehboob Beigh said. Experts say that a low turnout could actually go in favour of Mehbooba Mufti because she has already attracted sympathy from the voters loyal to her late father. They would come out to vote despite a boycott call. However, Congress’ Hilal Ahmad Shah, who gave the senior Mufti a tough fight in 2014 polls and is pitted against Mehbooba now, could still emerge as a strong opponent, the observers say.